Thursday, 6 September 2012

Scratching Out Sarajevo

It doesn't seem to matter where I go in former Yugoslavia. I turn up at a town, plug its name into Google and discover that it was the recent site of something horrific: a rape camp in Foča, a prison in which inmates were tortured to death in Sremska Mitrovica or the site of a massacre in Vukovar. I suppose that's what happens when you cycle around a former battlefield. Especially one that's been a battlefield on and off for over seven hundred years. Thank God next year I only have Hungary, Romania, the former USSR and Ireland. Ah shit.

Of all the places I've been in recent weeks the only one with some hope in its story is Sarajevo. In all the others, people were endlessly tortured and slaughtered or women were relentlessly raped but Sarajevo was a city that, despite suffering plenty of death of its own, braved it out and didn't give up. Pyrrhic victory though it may have been, it was at least a victory.

Last week I slipped into Sarajevo by the road that had been known as Sniper's Alley. It was the route from the airport to the centre of town, a nightmare of a ride that would have seen your vehicle peppered with bullets from gunmen hidden in the tall buildings on either side of the road. And me without a cycling helmet!

After fixing a cheap room in a crumbling banana yellow and lime green concrete precinct near the centre of the old town I went out to meet Julian, an OU student, and Fedya, his Bosnian colleague. Julian had been a UN peacekeeper here during the siege and is now back to help train army officers in peace management, using lessons learned from the Bosnian conflict when things didn't go as well as they might have done. He admitted that a lot of mistakes were made. Fedya is a local who now works with Julian and lived through the siege from age 12 to 15. I thought my early teens were traumatic.

Fedya and Julian

We met in town in Baščaršija Square, known by tourists as Pigeon Square because they can't pronounce Baščaršija, or the really not so difficult "bash-shar-she-er". I'd love the Bosnians to get their own back and pronounce it Piggy-On Square but, alas, they don't.

Together we walked to Sarajevo's brewery. The brewery had been an important lifeline during the siege. It has its own spring and so, as one of the few sources of unpoisonable water in town, the Sarajevans would queue to get their share in a city starved of all basic utilities. Julian told me that, as the thirsty hauled away their plastic tubs of water, cocky snipers on the surrounding hills would aim to pierce their containers.

Let's meet in Piggy On Square

On the way to the brewery Fedya pointed out local attractions. First we passed the corner where, in 1914, Gavrilo Princip blew away Archduke Franz Ferdinand thereby launching World War I and, ninety years later, a successful UK guitar band. Then we saw the Turbeh, the tomb of seven wrongly convicted and beheaded brothers. There's a belief that if you visit the site and talk to the lads in the right order, the question to which you desperately seek an answer will be relayed by the mutterings of the first person you hear upon leaving. I thought it might be fun to hang around outside and shout out useful answers: "A boy or a girl? Neither. It's a fish" or "Of course your arse looks fat in those jeans. Your arse is fat." But these people have already had enough trouble.

The Turbeh: "And tomorrow's winning horse will be...?"

Once inside the brewery's moodily lit bar Fedya gave me a month's course of Balkan history in about an hour. There was a lot to take in. I wish I'd recorded it. Even Julian who is knee deep in this topic said that he'd learned something new.

This session was also my 20,000 Kilometre Party. Although I couldn't be positive, not having a working mileometer, I calculated a few weeks ago that I would hit the 20K mark by Sarajevo. What better way to celebrate than with good company and a few pints of Sarajevska's dark, treacley beer?

Fedya had to leave and so Julian and I went for something to eat. "You fancy pie?" he asked. Blackburnians always fancy pie but I haven't had a real one in years. But he was talking about burek, a stuffed flaky pastry that I've had in various forms since Greece. The Greek spanakotiropita - spinach and cheese pie - is one version. It can occasionally be great but is frequently bland with watery spinach and tasteless cheese. Turkey's burek - aside from a lovely one I had in Jalova - usually had even less taste. More filling please! But as I'd headed farther north into the Balkans things had improved and, here in Sarajevo, they reached their zenith with the best meat burek I'd ever tasted, a circular dish filled with an ever decreasing radius of filo pastry, crunchy on the outside, soft and buttery further in, with a thick sausage of tasty meat throughout the centre. Perfect.

Late afternoon the next day, the second part of Julian's tour required his car. Up into the steep hills we went, where the Bosnian Serbs had been positioned, shelling and sniping at the poor sods in the town down below. It's also up on this hill that you can see the old 1984 Winter Olympics toboggan run, now derelict, graffitied and with the occasional hole blasted through to make it the ideal defensive cover.

"It's perfectly safe," Julian said, and so I walked down inside the remaining kilometre or so of track while he drove the car to the bottom. It was eery being inside the concrete tunnel amongst the darkening woods in the perfectly still evening, knowing that only a few years before these trees would have been crawling with hundreds of paramilitary launching mortars from all around. I reached the bottom of the track and had to jump from the top of a small wall. At its base was a patch of grass and a patch of concrete. "Err, aim for the concrete," Julian hinted. I looked at him uneasily. "You can't be too safe." Bosnia, especially in these hills, is littered with mines and many of the ruined buildings are booby trapped. Finishing the remaining 10,000 kilometres of UniCycle50 would be difficult with a leg missing.

Going for

Sarajevo is a wonderfully atmospheric little city - one of this year's surprise highlights - but my time here was up. The next day I was off to Belgrade, capital of Serbia, with more to see than I had time to manage. I did get a few minutes inside Tito's mausoleum. As well as his tomb, his uniforms, the many gifts he'd received from foreign officials and the dozens of batons that were relayed across Jugoslavia each year to be handed to him on his birthday, there was a relief map of former Yugoslavia. A visitor had scratched out Sarajevo.

Scratched out Sarajevo (circled)

Tito, dictator though he was, is thought of as the most benign of the Eastern Bloc's Communist leaders. Using his mantra of Brotherhood and Unity he kept this fragile country at peace. It wasn't democracy but thousands weren't being butchered by their own former neighbours. Rousseau wrote: "Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. So perfect a government is not for men." Britain has a system that looks a bit like democracy but isn't really. Maybe other peoples need even less of it.

This evening I made it to my sixth of the seven countries to emerge from Yugoslavia, Croatia. I arrived at a town called Osijek. With the internet connected it was a relief to read that this place had got away with only light bombing and few casualties during the war. But then I scrolled further down the page. It seems that five Croatian officials from here had been condemned for war crimes commited against Serb civilians. It's Serbs killing Muslims killing Croats killing Serbs wherever you go.

Fedya has a Muslim father, a Serb mother and a Croat uncle. I'd asked him what he would do - would he take a side? - if another conflict broke out. I was hoping he'd tell me that such a thing could never happen again. But he didn't. "I'd have to leave," he said. Where's a Tito when you need him?